What’s to like?
Imagine a medium where instruments and sampled sounds morph into a form of music that hints at familiarity, yet draws you into something altogether unfamiliar and unexplored. Welcome to the soundscapes of Bass Communion.
The low down
When it comes to electronic music, Tangerine Dream may be the first name that springs to mind, and they’ve certainly earned their status as one of the most popular synthesiser groups, even though in latter years they’ve been accused of drifting into the mainstream and simply recycling the same programmes.
Conversely, their former colleague Klaus Schulze is often considered the architect of ambient cool, foregoing commercial aspirations and focussing on music as art, continuously looking for new ways to express melody in a timeless continuum.
But since those pioneering electronic meditations in the early seventies, the matrix of synthesised music has adapted, expanded and integrated into so much of our daily lives. Whether it be the ubiquitous sounds of dance music filtering across every social medium, or merely sampled background music while we wait in queues, it’s got to the point where it becomes a constant soundtrack that our senses barely register.
In a recent interview for Prog magazine, Schulze stated “The commercialisation of electronic sound …didn’t help, with typical pop structures incorporated into pure electronic music. People started using preset sounds only, so a lot of stuff started sounding the same. Hardly anyone uses a synthesiser anymore to create their own abstract sounds.” (Source: Prog magazine July 2018).
But there are artists out there still trying to push the boundaries of the listening experience, experimenting in an aural ecosystem where real instruments merge with field recordings (a term used for audio recordings, of both natural and human-produced sounds outside the studio eg birdsong, waves, traffic, crowds).
The results can be immersive and hypnotic at times, disorientating and unsettling at other times. You can end up feeling like you’re in some sort of parallel existence, where everything around you is still vaguely familiar, but slightly out of sync. It’s almost like the sonic equivalent of a gauze curtain slightly blurring your long distance vision, but you still become embedded in the listening experience.
One such artist who experiments with these sound techniques is Steven Wilson, via his Bass Communion project which he began in 1994. The results have been described as “experiments in texture”, and have a lot in common with the genre of drone music.
A drone is “a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece.” (source Wikipedia)
Bass Communion is very much about atmosphere and drawing the listener inwards, as opposed to sequenced melodies and rhythmic patterns offering to take you outward on a cosmic journey. While there are occasional beats within some of the compositions, they’re very much in the background for added effect, mixed so low that you can barely make them out.
I mistakenly assumed that the rest of the music was being composed through traditional keyboard and synthesiser rigs, but it turns out that a lot of Bass Communion sounds are simply that – real sounds sampled and manipulated via laptop software. And I think that’s the attraction for me as a listener.
Wilson takes the familiar, and distorts it into something that still has vestiges of that familiarity, but at the same time it sounds…different. You think you know what it is you’re hearing, but you can’t quite be sure. And no matter how often you come back to the same composition, you never quite get to fully grasp what it is you’re hearing.
There’s little in the way of discernible melody, but it’s not particularly challenging to listen to. Single notes are sustained and extend into the distance, seemingly unending, sometimes shimmering, sometimes flat and dull, occasionally veering into harshness and intensity. Some pieces last around the twenty minute mark while others are barely a few seconds long. You can shuffle the running order and it makes no difference – the effect on the listener remains one of being drawn into this parallel world of sound.
While the earlier Bass Communion albums (helpfully titled I, II and III) start out with more conventional and recognisable forms of melody, those forms gradually diminish as Wilson pushes the envelope in manipulating sound.
Ghosts On Magnetic Tape is a good example of this. Throughout the entire album, there are only a handful of single piano notes, played sporadically amidst crackling static sampled from 78rpm LPs. The rest of the sound is created from patterns where a monophonic tone is slowly amplified from silence to a point where you think it can’t get any louder and deeper into your consciousness, before gradually receding back to silence. It can feel a little unsettling and oppressive in places, and on some occasions you get a sense of deep pathos and sadness, but it’s a fascinating aural experience.
The only problem is trying to get hold of these albums. Wilson tends to restrict releases to limited availability, which can make them feel special to collectors, but can be a bugger to track down years later. I was lucky enough to stumble across the first two albums in a junk shop in a fishing village!
Many of these releases are limited to vinyl, and if they do appear on cd, chances are they’ve been given an alternative mix to the vinyl version. The Cenotaph album was given an ambient sound mix for its vinyl version, and then an alternative, more rhythmic mix for the cd version. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a third mix was made when the music was played in the background as the audience drifted in to take their seats on Wilson’s Grace For Drowning tour.
If you’re thinking of buying-before-trying, then I’d suggest visiting Wilson’s own Headphone Dust webstore, where there’s still a good selection of releases available on vinyl and cd format, and very reasonably priced compared to the extortionate rates being offered via the likes of Amazon.
Alternatively, if you prefer trying-before-buying, then here are a few samples that offer an impression of Bass Communion’s sound. (Bear in mind though that the actual releases have far better audio quality).
Drugged (2) (from Bass Communion I)
16 Second Swarm (from Bass Communion II)
Citadel (from Cenotaph)
Is it music? Perhaps not in the conventional sense. Is it art? Yes – something new is being created, and you could describe the results here as sound sculpture.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you like the idea of exploring the medium of sampled sound as an instrument in its own right, then Bass Communion is a fascinating diversion into an alternative world resonating around us.